George had told her this was how the end would begin.
Ashanti tried to blink away the black spots, but they weren’t temporary afterimages. This was her body betraying her one last time.
She gripped the doorframe. There would be no working today. Ever again? It was impossible to imagine.
“Ama?” Max tugged at her hand, and when she didn’t respond, he pressed his face hard into her side. Ashanti put a hand on his head, feeling the soft curls, trying to steady her breathing.
When she could control her voice, she said, “Can you walk Ama to her chair, Max?”
His tiny hand came up and gripped her fingers. Together, they walked to the chair, and Ashanti sank into it. Max climbed onto her lap. She couldn’t stand to see her son obscured by the dark spots, so she closed her eyes and hugged him close, focusing on his smell and the feel of his solid pudginess in her arms. She should call Hiram, tell him it had started. George said once it began, there would be days at most. But Ashanti made no move toward the comm. Instead she sat perfectly still, hugging her boy tightly, feeling his breathe move in and out.
As he had been when he lived inside her, Max was content to snuggle close and be still for much longer than most children, but he was nearly two, which meant that he had to wiggle eventually. He pushed away and twisted around, putting a hand on each side of her face.
“No, beta, just resting.” Ashanti forced a smile and opened her eyes. She could only see one of his beautiful brown eyes and the round cheek under it. The rest was already in darkness. It’s fine, she told herself. You knew him before you could see him. It is just the same.
“No. No school today. Today we’ll stay here.”
That brown eye squinted. He wasn’t happy. Max liked his routine, and though he wasn’t one to throw fits, lately he had started quietly crying when things didn’t go his way. She really should call Hiram.
“We can do school at home, beta. How is that?”
The eye shifted as he cocked his head, and she now saw his little button nose.
Ashanti wasn’t sure how she would manage, but she nodded anyway. “Yes. Go get your blocks.”
Max jumped down. She immediately missed his weight, holding her down, holding her together. When something hard bumped her knee, she opened her eyes again. Max was back with his box of geometric blocks. Ashanti slide down onto the floor next to her son.
“What should we build?” she asked, even though she knew what the answer would be.
“All right. What shapes do we need to make a star?” Fortunately, this dialogue was familiar to both of them, and Max didn’t really need help with the star anymore. George and Mia said it shouldn’t even be possible for a child his age to manipulate the blocks the way Max did. His spacial reasoning was off the charts, and though his motor skills couldn’t keep up, he made up for the lack with extreme persistence. Ashanti reached out and squeezed his shoulder. He shrugged her off, not wanting interference with his work. Something sharp and cold stabbed at her chest, and for a second Ashanti thought it was a new symptom. Then she recognized it as grief.
Her son had incredible gifts, and he was going to do something amazing with his life. Only she was going to miss it.
Her whole vision went black, and Ashanti didn’t even try to see through it. She had no idea how much time passed before the door opened with its soft chime. She recognized Hiram’s steady footsteps even before Max said, “Da!”
“Hey there, bigs. Look at what you made.”
“Sar! Un. Two. Tee.”
“Three stars. They’re wonderful. Maybe you can make a space ship to travel from star to star.”
Max immediately began rummaging in his block box again.
Hiram’s voice came closer as he sat on the floor by Ashanti. “Bel said you were late coming in to the lab.”
Ashanti just nodded.
She nodded again.
Hiram took her hand. “Too soon,” he said. “It was always going to be too soon.”
Ashanti couldn’t stop the tears as he pulled her close.
After a while, he cleared his throat. “I’ll comm Tan and have him send Lil.”
“No,” Ashanti said into his shirt. “Not yet.” She took a deep breath, tried to pull herself together as she sat up. “There’s nothing for her to do here but watch her mother degenerate. She should stay at school.”
“Shanti.” He said her name so quietly that she opened her eyes. She still had that one patch of clarity, enough to see his mouth and chin as he said, “We only have a short time together. We need to be a family.”
Ashanti swallowed. She thought of Lil, just turned seven and full of energy. Every night for the last four months, the little girl had read to her mother while she endured the headaches or tried to control her shaking body. In the last few weeks, Lil had started picking up the family dinner from the mess, so that Hiram could walk Ashanti home from the labs. The girl knew what was coming, and she was already preparing to fill the mother’s role, playing with Max in the evenings and helping Hiram clean up the quarters. But who would fill her mother’s place in Lil’s life?
As always, Hiram was right. Lil needed every minute they had together. “Yes,” she said.
After he made the call, Hiram sat silently next to her, holding her hand. They had gotten to the place now where no words were necessary. The marriage that had been a friendly partnership for the first twenty-five years had grown into something deeper and more exciting after the discovery of Una and Dua. They had changed course as a colony, and her private life had changed course at the same time. That year had been the best of her life.
Then one day her right hand had started trembling uncontrollably. The next day it was the entire right side of her body. George ran extensive tests. The news wasn’t just bad. It was the worst. An extremely rare degenerative disease. Genetic. Incurable.
“We keep discovering new techniques and inventing new cures, and our bodies respond by manufacturing new ways to die,” he had said. George wasn’t known for his bedside manner, and his anger at his own uselessness made him even more curt than usual. “We cure cancer; then we start seeing Throm’s disease. We find a treatment for HIV, and suddenly Gorhoff syndrome rears its head. We’ve managed to increase average life-span past a hundred, but it’s like there’s some invisible line we can’t cross.”
As a scientist, Ashanti understood why this frustrated him at macro level. As a woman, all she could see was her own imminent death. Four to six months, George said. He could give her drugs to help manage some symptoms, but there was no effective treatment.
That was the first night she and Hiram passed holding hands and saying nothing. In the weeks that followed, they had many long talks that lasted until the early hours of the morning, but that first night there was only the fierce grip of shared pain. The same grip that held them now.
They could do these next few days together, but after that, they would each have a road to walk alone. In some ways that was the worst part. They had just learned how to really be together, and now it would end.
The door opened, and Lil ran in.The girl never walked when she could run. Ashanti caught a glimpse of wildly swinging brown curls and a perfectly formed ear before her daughter threw herself down beside her and wrapped her arms around her neck. Ashanti closed her eyes and willed the tears away. She needed to be strong. She needed to… Lil’s whole body shook, and Ashanti wrapped her arms around her girl and sobbed with her.
The unfairness of it all ripped at her. Her father had been one of the architects of this colony. He and Hiram’s mother and father had written the charter, had recruited other families, had spearheaded the building of this ship. Ashanti had prepared for this mission since she was three years old. She had married Hiram and boarded the ship at age 20. She had helped steer the decision to move toward Una and Dua and had made the final calculations for their new course. She had studied those two planets for months as they decided which they should colonize first. She had worked all those years to get to this point: less than three months from landing on Una, from founding their first village, from beginning a brighter future. She would never see any of it now. She would never step foot on Una. She would never see her daughter grow into a woman and take over her father’s job as governor. She would never see Max realize his full genius, would never get to take him on as apprentice. How could you be so close to everything you ever wanted and then get none of it?
Then Lil pulled away, leaving her hands gently on Ashanti’s shoulders. “Does it hurt?” she whispered. “Can I help?”
Ashanti’s sobs stilled even as the tears flowed harder. What kind of seven-year-old asked that? How could Ashanti say she hadn’t gotten all that she wanted when she had a child like this? Lil’s empathy and compassion. Max’s quiet brilliance. This was what the universe had given her and what she would leave to make a better future. Hiram’s steadiness and inner fire. This was what the universe had given her and what would guide her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“I’m not in pain,” she said to Lil. “All you need to do is be here.”
They all sat in silence for a long time.
“The department heads came to me yesterday,” Hiram said. “They said everyone has taken a vote. They want to name the first village after you. Shanti, they want to call it.” She could hear the lump in his throat.
Ashanti was moved by their affection, but..”That isn’t right,” she said.
“They want to remember you. You brought us here,” Hiram said.
“If they want to remember me, they should call it Wayland,” Ashanti said. She had taken Hiram’s last name when they married, not because she liked it or wanted to make Hiram happy but because it set a good example of family unity for the rest of the colony. Now she thanked her younger self for doing the right thing, even if her reasons were weak. “This. Us. This is what should be remembered. Not me alone.”
Hiram nodded and took her hand again. Max butted his head into her side again, and Lil cuddled close. Ashanti closed her eyes and just felt them all. Together, for as long as there was.